WAVERLY, Tenn. (AP) — The search for those missing in flooding that killed more than 20 people over the weekend pressed on Tuesday in rural Tennessee, with crews scouring the banks of a creek for any bodies that washed away.
Trees beside the normally shallow Trace Creek were matted with a thick mix of vegetation, garbage, and debris from people’s homes, complicating the search in Humphreys County, where the town of Waverly saw the most death and destruction from Saturday’s flooding. Even cars and sheds were woven into the tangle.
Humphreys County Chief Deputy Rob Edwards said heavy equipment and track hoes were moving the largest pieces of debris while searchers with chainsaws were clearing the way by hand. Fewer than 10 people remained unaccounted for on Tuesday.
The search teams started in Waverly and were slowly moving downstream. Others were searching several miles downstream with drones, Edwards said. It’s difficult to know how far the bodies might have been carried, but one car was found about a half-mile from where it had been parked.
Sheriff’s deputies and police were aided by crews sent from agencies from all over the state, he said. The teams have cadaver dogs at the ready if they suspect a body might be nearby. With the heat in the mid-80s and rising, it was not difficult to detect the odor of decay, Edwards said, although crews also were finding animals.
Meanwhile, the state received approval from President Joe Biden for a major disaster declaration, which frees up federal aid to help with recovery efforts in Humphreys County, the White House said in a statement Tuesday.
The flooding took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, leaving people uncertain about whether family and friends survived the unprecedented deluge, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state’s one-day record.
It also left large swaths of the community suddenly displaced, leaving many to sort through difficult decisions about what comes next.
GoFundMe pages sought help for funeral expenses for the dead, including 7-month-old twins swept from their father’s arms as they tried to escape.
Matthew Rigney and Danielle Hall described to WTVF-TV how the water began to rage through their apartment where they were sheltered with their four children.
“I had the twins in my arms, I had (19-month-old) Brayla on my hip and I had (5-year-old) Maleah wrapped around my neck,” Rigney told the news station, his voice trembling behind tears. “The water, when it hit us it just pulled us under, all of us and we were trapped underneath a bed.”
Hall said she was trying to seek help by climbing out the window to go to a nearby store, and she ended up having to grab onto a tree for her life.
The other two children survived.
“I was trying to find all of them, and Leah came up like a big girl. You swam like a big girl and I’m so proud of you,” Rigney said to Maleah, who sat with her family on the couch during the interview.
A neighbor helped Rigney and the two children up to the roof. Hall was ultimately rescued from the tree by boat.
More than 90 people stayed in shelters Sunday, according to the state’s American Red Cross chapter as rescue workers continued their arduous searches for anyone else swept away.
Waverly police Chief Grant Gillespie said Monday that the number of people considered missing has fluctuated, as people were unable to contact loved ones later confirmed to be safe.
“I’m reasonably sure that we are less than 10 right now that we are truly not sure about the whereabouts of, or that we don’t think we’ll resolve fairly easily,” Gillespie said.
Many of the missing live in the neighborhoods where the water rose the fastest, said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis. The names of the missing were listed on a board in the county’s emergency center and on a city of Waverly Facebook page, which was being updated as people called in and reported themselves safe.
The Humphreys County Sheriff Office Facebook page filled with people looking for missing friends and family.
School was canceled for the week, according to the sheriff’s office. Waverly Elementary and Waverly Junior High had extensive damage, according to Kristi Brown, coordinated health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools. About 750 customers were without power on Tuesday, down from 2,000 the night before, utility officials said.
After touring the area on Sunday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache.”
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